The world was already moving away from cash. For better or for worse, the pandemic is accelerating that trend and it shows no signs of stopping down.
As virtually every major country has gone through a lockdown at some point or another this year (with more lockdowns looming on the horizon), people have been forced to do more of their shopping online than they would have normally. Additionally, millions of people who had never used a credit or debit card to pay for things online have now been converted — and this trend doesn’t show signs of slowing down.
Even in physical stores, shoppers who used to prefer paying in cash are now reluctant to touch currency that exchanged who knows how many other hands before reaching their pocket. In fact, many stores have stopped accepting cash altogether, although it’s not entirely clear if and how physical currency can transmit the novel coronavirus. People would rather be on the safe side, and who can blame them?
It seems that the pandemic is accelerating a trend set in motion years ago that may shift society towards a completely cashless future.
Going cashless, but not just yet
Some believe completely digital payments are more convenient, easier to track, and more secure. Others believe that going completely cashless is a nightmare and a blatant breach of one’s right to keep their finances and personal transactions private. We’re not there yet — far from it — but recent developments suggest that hard cash might become obsolete. And like any major transition, expect this road to get bumpy.
For one, don’t place your bet against cash just yet. Cash remained the most popular form of payment for Americans up until just last year, San Francisco Federal Reserve’s annual survey. Cash is still the preferred mode of payment for purchases below $10, the survey found.
The tipping point, however, has largely been reached, and digital transactions seem to now be the leading form of payment, at least in the United States.
Meanwhile, in China, more than three-quarters of Chinese people were using digital payments in preference to cash — and that’s in 2017 before the pandemic. By all accounts, China is on track to become the first cashless society in the world, which would be rather ironic since China is also the first nation to introduce banknotes to the world. Full circle, I guess.
But a cashless future is not to everyone’s liking or their best interest. According to MarketWatch, there are 14.1 million adults and 6.4 million children in the United States who still do not have a bank account to their name. To complicate the picture, there’s a great deal of inequality in access to banking services among demographic groups. As of 2017, 3% of white households in the U.S were unbanked, while some 17% of Black and 14% of Hispanic households were unbanked, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation found.
Imagine being one of these ‘unbanked’ people who is denied service because a business doesn’t accept cash. This is a predicament that might become increasingly common in the future, predominantly affecting low-income people.
If you feel like this is discrimination, you’re not alone. The cities of New York, San Francisco, and Philadelphia have initiated legal action seeking to ban cashless stores and businesses. As always, money is bound to stir controversy.
Technology might offer a solution. PayPal allows customers to load cash into their accounts using terminals at stores such as Walmart. Customers then complete payments by scanning contactless QR codes using their phones, as an alternative to POS systems for small businesses. It’s getting easier to go cashless for small businesses, but at the moment, that’s still a band-aid more than a firm solution.
As more and more brick and mortar businesses shut down or transition exclusively online, it will become more and more challenging for unbanked people to access services as easily as banked people.
Will the last unbanked people simply be forced to comply for convenience? What about those who simply refuse to employ digital payments and banking out of privacy concerns or personal principles? These aren’t easy questions to answer, but one thing’s for sure: this pandemic is offering a glimpse of things to come. Many prominent leaders, such as hedge fund manager Ray Dalio, have cautioned that we’re in the midst of the transition towards a new world order. Cash may be one of the victims of this transition.
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.